School board denies Cox Academy’s charter, hears from low-performing schools
on March 11, 2010
Wednesday’s school board meeting was packed by 5:30 pm and though the largest crowds had left by 9:30 pm, the board did not adjourn to closed session until shortly before midnight. In addition to the several hot issues on the agenda, each of which pulled in a crowd, representatives from four Oakland public schools that have just been listed on the state’s lowest-performing schools list came to the meeting to state their disagreement with the listing.
The crowd filled every seat and spilled out into the hallway and up to the overflow room on the fourth floor where they watched the meeting on a simulcast screen. Some of the groups in attendance: Freemont High School football fans, students, teachers and parents from schools placed on the low-performing list by the California State Board of Education, more students, teachers and parents from two charter schools up for a charter renewal decision, a group of students from Oakland High School’s Environmental Science Academy and AFCSME union members.
The issue that proved most contentious was the charter renewal decision. World Academy and Cox Academy, two East Oakland elementary charter schools whose leadership appeared before the board in January to petition for the renewal of their charters were back to hear the charter office’s recommendation and use the public comment time to sway the board’s decision.
The charter renewal for World Academy, a K-3 school, was quickly approved despite the comments of Jim Mordacai, Ben Visnick and Tania Kaptner, teachers who speak out against the creation or renewal of any charter school in Oakland.
Cox Academy — though parents, students and teachers filled the seats at the meeting — faced a tougher review. The school board’s Teaching and Learning Committee had referred the charter decision to the board without making a recommendation, which is unusual. The K-5 school’s performance since being converted to a charter school four years ago has been poor, but the school is under new leadership who have galvanized the support of their students’ parents and the larger community. The district’s charter school office made a recommendation that the charter be renewed for two years instead of the normal five and that the school be required to show significant growth in two years under its new leadership team of principal Enikia Ford-Morthel and assistant principal Julia Newlin.
“I come to you begging tonight to let us try,” Karole Brown, the mother of a first grader at Cox Academy, said to the board when public speakers were called to comment. “Give us that chance. If you take that away from us we don’t have any other options in the neighborhood.”
Every board member joined in the ensuing lengthy discussion, as well as Jaqueline Minor, the school district’s lawyer, who said that if the charter was denied by OUSD, Cox Academy’s leaders could appeal the decision to the county and then to the state. Some board members asked David Montes de Oca, head of the charter school office, to clarify his office’s position since the conditional two-year renewal he proposed is unusual. Montes de Oca said that though he was “uneasy” about the school’s current standing, he felt good about the current leadership and that Cox “might need the consistency of staying as is in order to achieve gains.”
“Your children are still failing,” school board member Alice Spearman told the crowd when it was her turn to speak. “Just cause you have a principal you like and you feel good—your children are still failing!”
“Where we gonna send them that they don’t fail?” Brown shot back from the audience.
The majority of the Cox Academy supporters had to leave the meeting before the discussion ended because the bus that had been hired to get them there was departing, so it was in front of a nearly empty room that the board took its final vote on the school’s charter. With Noel Gallo and Jumoke Hodge dissenting, the Cox Academy charter was denied.
“It’s disheartening,” Newlin said after the decision had been handed down, “but we’re not even close to giving up.” Newlin said the group planned to appeal to the county immediately. If the county or the state approves their charter, the Oakland school board will no longer have any power over the school, according to Minor, even though it will still serve city children.
The other issue that drew large crowds was the recent release this week of California’s lowest-performing schools list. Schools are judged to be persistently low performing if their average standardized test scores are below a certain bar and have not risen in compliance with the adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards set by the state. The list is currently still just a draft but the State Board of Education will vote tonight to make it final. If the Oakland schools on the list—there were five small middle schools from East Oakland listed—remain on the list they face the possibility of major restructuring for the 2010-2011 year.
Explore Middle School, which is already slated to close in June, is one of the schools on the list but there were no representatives from the school in attendance last night. Representatives from the four other Oakland middle schools that made the list—Roots Academy, Alliance Academy, Elmhurst Prep, and United For Success — spoke during the public comments time at the beginning of the meeting. Teachers, parents and students from these schools were irate about having been listed.
“We’re very surprised, shocked and disappointed that we are on a list as one of the lowest performing schools in California,” Christina Villarreal, a teacher at Elmhurst Prep, said. “We are not and we have the data to prove it.”
The data they offered, which was repeated much later in the meeting by the district’s chief academic officer, Brad Stam, showed that over the course of five years their school has improved students’ average standardized test scores on the California State Test by 120 points, from 527 to 647. A score of 647 on California’s 1,000 point scale is still far below the 800 point score the State Board of Education deems “proficient,” but Elmhurst teachers maintain that there has been such a turnaround at their school in the last three years that they could continue to dramatically improve scores. By the same measure Alliance Academy improved scores by 102 points and the other two schools also exceeded the 50 point improvement requirement, Stam said.
Elmhurst Prep was founded in 2006 along with the other three middle schools represented last night. All of them are a part of the Oakland small schools network and were all converted from larger schools that were performing far below proficiency standards according to test score data. When a school is created it is given a new state-issued identifier number that is used to track the school’s performance, Brad Stam, the school district’s chief academic officer said.
One of the criteria for being placed on the lowest-performing schools list is for a school’s average test scores to have gained less than 50 points in the last five years. But since these schools have only been tracked since 2006, only three years of testing data could have been considered, Stam said. Stam said he would be asking the State Board to remove from the list any schools that have been in existence for less than five years because such a measurement was not equitable.
“We acknowledge that there is work to do,” at these schools, Stam said, “but the designation of persistently low-achieving does not appreciate the fact that they were new. They were judged on five years [of data], when they have only been in existence for only 3 years.”
Victor Romero, a father whose oldest daughter just graduated from Elmhurst and whose younger daughter is in 7th grade there, was more focused on the school climate than on the numbers. “The students before didn’t have no intention to learn,” Romero said. “My daughter just graduated from Elmhurst and she’s at a higher level [than the other students at her high school] now. Elmhurst is one of the best.”
The board later turned its attention to its budget. Now that all of the numbers are in for both the restricted and unrestricted budget OUSD chief financial officer Vernon Hal said that the district is facing an $85.5 million shortfall due to loss of funding from state cuts, declining enrollment and the exhaustion of last year’s federal stimulus money.
Hal said that $65 million of this cut would be in personnel costs but he would not commit to a number of school site employees who may lose their jobs in addition to the 87 district office jobs that have already been slated for cutting. Smith reiterated his position that the state cuts were “beyond immoral — it’s illegal.”
“Moving numbers around doesn’t just have a budget effect,” said Smith, “It has a material effect on families and on the social fabric of the city.”
In other business, the board recognized the Fremont High football team for winning the 2009 Lou Jones Silver Bowl. “I tell my players to just overcome what’s in front of us,” head coach Taniela Falevai said, referring to the lack of a field to practice on and other challenges the winning team has faced. Each player shook the Superintendent’s hand and board member Jumoke Hodge asked all of them what their post-college plans were. Answers ranged from playing at a Division 1 university— Sione Tupouata has already signed a letter of intent with Utah—to “opening a string of barber shops.”
Fifteen year-old Lavaka Maile flashed a big grin when it was his turn to talk. “I’m a sophomore and I’m hoping to be an engineer,” he said confidently.
A planned presentation by AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, was pushed back to a later date.
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